The Scariest Moment of My Solo Hike

Day 3, 10 am. Jct. New Army Pass/Rock Creek and PCT!!!! (Still Wednesday, August 19, 2015)

HO-OLY SHIT!  HOLY FUCKING SHIT!  I just had the living crap scared out of me!

I was earnestly hiking along the New Army Pass trail, excited to get my first real 10 mile day under my belt and reach the John Muir Trail.  It was about 9am and the air was cool and the sun’s beams were still aspiring to break through the morning air, hazy with smoke and mist.  At 10,800 feet I was still in the midst of rugged alpine forest and feeling anxious to get through it: the forest scares me a little. I don’t like not being able to see around me.  I have to work at suppressing my imagination which exaggerates every noise and shadow and tries to convince me something will jump out from behind a tree or around the next bend or that I’m being preyed upon by wild eyes. I feel much safer in the granite fields above the tree line! Rock Creek Crabtree sign

When I approached my first Rock Creek crossing, I knelt down and splashed cool water on my face while I did a quick scan up and down the creek to find my best crossing point. The water was low, spanning about 5 feet across and babbling gently.  I crossed easily.

As I stepped across the shallow creek I thought I saw a flash of red dart through the thick forest on the other side. People! I got excited, I hadn’t seen anyone yet that morning and having company in the gloomy forest would have been comforting.

I reached the other side and looked around for the person in the red jacket I thought I’d seen. Nothing. Hmm, I guess the shadows and the trees are playing tricks on me.

day 3 view of soldier lake
The view toward Soldier Lake and Miter Basin as I hiked out on Morning 3

I spotted a big rock with a couldn’t-pass-up natural bench cut out and decided it was the perfect spot to take a break and have a snack. Just as I unclipped the waist belt of my pack to sit back and relax I heard a loud muffled THUD behind me, like something very large hitting the forest floor. A bear!  I spun around and visually examined the trees and rocks for its source.  Nothing. Ok it must have just been a widow maker (a giant pine cone falling from the tree).  I leaned back against the rock, pack still on and tried to relax while never taking my eyes off the forest from which the THUD had come.

I sucked water from my Camelback drip tube, ate a handful of homemade gorp and popped another Orange Stinger Energy Chew into my mouth. A hollow rat-tat-tat echoed high up in the trees in front of me. It startled me a little before I realized it was just a woodpecker.  (Maybe it’s Woody! That would explain the red I saw – oh boy, my nerves are making me a little campy!!!)

And then: crunch, snap, crunch…  the undergrowth of the forest floor was being crushed under the weight of something behind a giant rock about 20 feet in front of me. What the hell? Then it stopped as suddenly as it started. I convinced myself it was just a deer or squirrel and carried on with my break. Then suddenly the finally-silent  forest came alive again —

YIIIP! YIP-YIP-YIP!

It was a high pitched bark – like from a little dog – just a few hundred feet to my left in the direction of the forested New Army Pass trail. Yay! Someone’s coming – and they have a dog!  (Oh I miss Capone) Maybe it’s the mystery person in red.

And just as I realized – Wait, dogs aren’t allowed out……
YELP. YEEEEELLLP! YEEEEEELP.
Wow, is the dog hurt?
YEEEELP. YIPYIPYIPYIP. HOOOOWWWLLL! HOW-HOW-HOWWWWL!

And then all hell broke loose.
Screeching, yelping, yipping, barking,  and the ugliest most awful blood curdling maniacal wild chorus of howling I’d ever heard.
Coyotes!?!  YES! – A whole freaking giant pack of them!?! What the hell?? This was nothing like any coyote howls I’d ever heard laying in my tent at night! HOLY SHIT!
I sat frozen on my rock bench, orange Stinger stuck in my throat. Listening. Is one hurt? Is it being killed? Are they hunting? — ME???  —Oh shit are they hunting ME???  OhShitWhatDoIDo? 

It sounded like some crazy eerie coyote sacrifice. Holy fuck – and they’re close! Too close.  I stood up and looked in the direction the sounds were coming from. My eyes strained to search the forested hill in front of me and the meadow on my left  – where I half expected to see a dozen rabid coyotes charging toward me – for signs of movement. It sounded like they were no more than a few hundred feet away.
YIPYIPYIP. YEEEELP. YIPP. YIPPP. YIP-YIP-YIP-YIP. HOW-WULLLLL!
I crammed my energy chews and gorp back into the side pockets of my pack, buckled up and got ready to walk briskly the hell out of there (I know not to run when being hunted by wild animals but walking fast is ok, right?).

Oh NO. No No No No No!  The horrible coyote hunt/kill/sacrifice was happening right in the direction of my trail. What do I do? Do I wait? (For them to come and eat me next…? No thank you!). Let them finish and then go? But what if that just gives them time to come for me?  I remind myself: Coyotes don’t hunt humans. But what if these coyotes DO?

COYOTES. DON’T. EAT. PEOPLE! I tried desperately to convince myself, which isn’t an easy thing to do when you’re alone in the wilderness and haven’t seen another human up close in over 18 hours.

YEEEELP. YEEEELP! YEEELLLLLP! YIPYIPYIP. YEEEELP. YIPP. YIPPP. YIP-YIP-YIP-YIP. HOWLLL-HOWLLL-HOW-WUL! soldier lake view with logo

Nothing out here wants to eat me… Nothing out here wants to hurt me I used my own familiar chant to combat my terror as I inched closer to the howling hillside while the eerie corybantic coyote chorus echoed through the trees like some beastly nightmarish hell-song. What if the trail leads straight up the hill toward them? What do I do then? I can’t just sit here and wait for them to discover me. I continued toward the hillside in the direction of the pack, obsessively scanning the hills for any signs of movement and scouting my trail, trying to see where it led.  Please lead me away from them. Please, please please.  (Yes, I was pleading with the trail gods.)

The frenzied death curdling barks and howls were slowing to an occasional YIP-YIP. YELP! HOW—WULLLLL!  I didn’t know whether to be relieved or more freaked out.

And then I saw it – thank you trail gods!  The trail veered off to the right, in the opposite direction of the blood-thirsty yippers.  I took the sharp right away from the now silent pack of (what my mortified imagination now made out to be) deadly human eating coyotes as quickly as possible. Their silence was no relief. Great, now they’re silently stalking me, closing in, and positioning themselves for the attack. Don’t run. Whatever you do, don’t run!  Oh my god, I wanted to run!

Rock Creek Lunch Break brandedIt took every ounce of self-control to walk and not break into a sprint. I never hiked a mile with 40lbs on my back so fast in my life. I was still obsessively turning around to make sure I wasn’t being followed and searching the woods around me looking for signs they were hunting me. I imagined a dozen barbarous coyote eyes on me at all times. I tried to reason with myself: I hear coyotes all the time when I’m out. They aren’t going to hurt me. Coyotes don’t eat humans. Coyotes don’t eat humans, coyotes don’t… but I’m alone, separated from my non-existent pack. I’m easy prey. Why the fuck did I decide to hike alone? I suddenly felt very vulnerable – and a little bit crazy.

My inner voices went into  full-on battle mode as I hiked: one wanting to comfort me, the other criticizing and keeping me in a state of fear.   Coyotes are afraid of humans. They were howling to warn others of my presence, that’s all. Yeah ok….nice try! Just keep walking.  All I wanted was to get to the Rock Creek junction. There’s something about a junction – I don’t know if it’s the human-made marker or what – but junctions give me a sense of safety and of not being quite so alone. My critical inner voice is relentless in trying to keep me in a freaked out state. Taunting me:  like a single wood post is going to protect you from a pack of ravenous human eating coyotes! Face it, you’re going to die out here...  My optimistic voice: maybe there will be other hikers there resting and waiting for others to catch up.  And there’s a ranger station there. Just go!

I was racing along the trail at record-breaking speed (for a backpacker) still frenetically scanning the woods around me for signs of beady coyote eyes or any movement.  I was still out of breath from my near death encounter (ok, maybe not really that close to death, but when you’re in it, try convincing yourself of that!) when about a mile down the trail something darted across the path a few yards in front of me. I gasped and stopped dead in my tracks. Oh shit, they’re surrounding me. This is it. I’m gonna to die. I braced myself for my end…

I think I literally laughed out loud when I realized it was  just a mama doe and her two adorable fawns. One of the baby deer, obviously as surprised to see me as I it, stopped dead in my path to observe me.  We both stood frozen on the trail, 10 feet apart curiously studying each other and luxuriating in the relief that the other wasn’t a coyote. I couldn’t help but appreciate how beautifully fragile it was. Awesome! Real coyote food!  I’m safe (I wonder if baby fawn thought the same of me!). As if reading my mind she took off into the forest.Have fun little fawn and watch out for the coyotes!”  I yelled as I hiked on toward Rock Creek Station at a  more relaxed and comfortable pace, feeling safer knowing there is real coyote food nearby.

It’s about 10:30 now. I’m at the junction of the PCT and the New Army Pass Trail relaxing on the grassy shore of Rock Creek.  I’m just sitting here soaking up the sun and enjoying not being coyote breakfast. I’ve soaked my feet and splashed fresh icy-cold creek water on my face and arms to wash the sweat and fear off my skin.   Now I’m trying to enjoy my lunch of Justin’s peanut butter and honey on Ener-G Foods wheat free, gluten free, flax crackers  that taste like cardboard. I brought them because they don’t crumble in my bear can – that should have been my first clue about taste! At least the peanut butter somewhat masks it.

I can’t believe it’s only 10:30 and I’ve already hiked 4 ½ miles!  Just 6 1/2 to go to get to Crabtree

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For more info about Coyote callings check out this interesting article from Adirondack Almanac : Coyotes: Decoding Their Yips, Barks, and Howls.

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Day 3: Sleepless nights and break ups

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

6 am at Soldier Lake

I slept a little bit last night. Not a lot, but more than the first night. After finishing my tea, I settled into my sleeping bag around 7:00 and laid awake until the sky turned black and the stars shone bright.  I finally dozed off at some point but tossed and turned through the night. Unlike my first night at Chicken Spring Lake there wasn’t a single scratch, scurry or footstep. The wilderness was quiet except for the sound of fresh mountain water traveling through the gorge, echoing against its walls as it cascaded over the rocky creek that feeds Soldier Lake. This somehow made me feel safe.

I was wide awake hours before sunrise watching the stars. I was lucky enough to witness a few meteors dart across the sky which always excites me like a little kid.  Independence Day is my favorite holiday and seeing shooting stars is like watching nature’s fireworks show.  I laid awake until the eastern sky ever so slowly began to transform from the black of night to dark blue. Is that sunrise? I’d turn over, cover my head, and peek out again a few minutes later. Yes, it’s lighterSunrise!  I was relieved that I could get up and make coffee soon. The nights can be long when you’re sprawled out on the hard cold ground. I was restless and ready to stop trying to sleep.

You think about a lot of things when you lay awake alone it the wilderness in the wee hours of morning.  And as I snuggled up all warm and cozy in my 24 degree down bag searching the sky for my own private fireworks show, I thought of Brad, the man I’d broken up with earlier in the year (a 5 month relationship- a record since my divorce!).  I thought about all the reasons we didn’t work out; all the things he is and isn’t and I wanted him to be. My gut swelled with contempt.  I don’t want to have this feeling out here – this is where I find peace and serenity, not contempt. It’s time too find a way to let this go.

near soldier lake
near soldier lake

My alone-ness enveloped me in the cold morning air as I reflected on the difficult work I’ve done over the last several years to get to a place where I’m ok with not being in a relationship – more than ok, really. I love my independence – a sharp contrast from the first few years after my divorce when I joined every dating site, and treated dating like an Olympic sport that I had to train for. My first year out of my marriage I must have gone on 30 first dates. I wasn’t very good at screening at first  and had a lot of very uncomfortable and awkward coffees.  (Oh, the stories I could tell… )

Brad and I had known each other for a couple years. We’d seen each other around but hadn’t really spent any time alone together. The month I decided to close my Match.com account and stop actively searching for the “One” he asked me out.  I explained that I wasn’t really interested in dating anyone and suggested we just be friends. But he was persistent and I finally agreed to go on a date with him a couple months later.

Brad is a nice guy and would have done anything for me.  But the outcome was the same as it always was: the relationships I attract seem to smother and mute me. They extinguish my fire and tame me. I knew I had to get out or risk losing myself again.  Sure, it was the right decision and I don’t regret it. But how many relationships will I have to walk away from?  Will I ever find someone who will inspire, energize and lift me up? The one who really gets me?

My friends say I  just haven’t found the “One” yet.   I believe it’s quite possible there just isn’t a “One” for me.  I’ve come to terms with that.  I’m even ok with it despite living in a world that tells me I’m supposed to get married, have kids, get the good job, buy the big house, get buried in debt, and live for that 2 week vacation.  Honestly, I’ve never subscribed to any of that -but I chased it anyway because I thought it’s what I was supposed to do.  The reality is when I got it, I felt emptier and less fulfilled than ever.

View of Chicken Spring lake (day 1)
View of Chicken Spring lake (day 1)

So then, why did I spend decades subscribing to the myth that I’m nobody unless I’m coupled?  I thought of many reasons (I won’t bore you with that much info) but frankly, one of the biggest is because I was born a woman. After all doesn’t society, media, and advertising tell us we should be obsessed with finding a man? Aren’t we groomed from birth to believe in Prince Charming and Fairy Tale weddings? They tell us if we wear the right clothes, the right shoes, the right makeup, if we’re ladylike, fun, easy going (not a “nag”), and flirty but not slutty we’ll land our Prince Charming!  I remember everyone telling me at 17 years old that I’d change my mind about not wanting to get married and have kids because, “All women want that. Just wait til your clock starts ticking.” Well come to find out, I have no clock and if I do, it certainly never ticked.

Once I came to terms with the fact that I don’t NEED a man my life, I realized I actually LIKE being alone. I love traveling alone, backpacking alone, going to the movies on a Wednesday afternoon alone. And while I also love the company of my friends who are fun and easy to be with – it’s not a requirement. It’s liberating to know that not having someone to do things with doesn’t hold me back.  How many people don’t live out their dreams and goals because they’re afraid to do it alone? Not me. Not anymore.

And yet…. as darkness turned to light this morning I had a stark realization: despite all those hours of therapy and all my talk of liberation, strength, and independence, the contempt I felt for Brad earlier had nothing to do with him.  Brad is perfectly fine just the way he is – he’s just not the right One for me. (There were a lot of reasons we didn’t work out, but when he confessed to me that REI “scared” him, I knew we had no future together – true story!) No, that feeling in my gut wasn’t contempt, it was about me still lamenting, why isn’t there a One for me? Why am I so different?  Tons of women would love to find a man like Brad. Why not me?  Sure, I may not need a man in my life, but it sure would be nice to someday find the One who really gets me.  How cool would it be to have someone to share this amazing adventure with?  I can’t even imagine… A sadness swept over me as I pondered why this has eluded me all my life and yet seems so easy for others.

Getting to a place in life where you realize you’re better off alone than spending it with the wrong people (who disrespect, drain, and deplete you without giving anything back) may be liberating, but it’s not always easy.

The sky was getting lighter and I was growing more restless laying there thinking about all this so I rolled over to check the time on my phone. 5 am! Yay, morning! I unzipped myself from my bag, did my stretches, put on my headlamp, and made coffee. It’s 6 now,  my oatmeal is soaking, and I’m getting ready to pack up to begin my hike to Rock Creek/Crabtree Meadow and the John Muir Trail!

I’m excited, it’s going to be a great day!

Read about my scariest day on the trail! 

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